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john ibbitson

Earlier this week, International Trade Minister Ed Fast met with his provincial counterparts to showcase the broad national support for a proposed Canada-European free-trade agreement. But it received barely a mention in the press.

The robo-call affair has sucked up so much political oxygen that virtually nothing else that is happening with the federal government is being noticed. The unveiling of the budget date, Wednesday: a second-tier story; new commitments to improve aboriginal education, an also-ran.

This is the political price that Stephen Harper is paying for his strategy of trying to ride out the controversy over automated calls that aimed to deceive voters during the last federal election.

Politically, it may be the best tactic for the Tories to take. But it means that the government has lost all ability to dictate the agenda. Conservatives are passionate about controlling the message; for now, at least, the message controls them.

Mr. Harper laid down a powerful marker in the House of Commons Wednesday, declaring emphatically that no one associated with the party's national campaign had anything to do with fraudulent calls – claiming to be from Election Canada – that directed people to non-existent polling stations.

"The Conservative party can say absolutely, definitively, it has no role in any of this," the Prime Minister declared in the House of Commons. He dismissed opposition allegations as "simply a smear campaign without any basis at all."

Yet clearly, fraudulent calls were placed by people acting in what they believed to be the interests of the Conservative Party. Until that contradiction is resolved, this issue will fester, and on any given day could push aside whatever the government would rather have Canadians focus on.

To make things worse for the Conservatives, there is no wise, trusted voice to make the party's case. A hyper-partisan front bench is exactly what you don't want at a time like this, but it is what this government mostly has. When Mr. Harper isn't heaping calumny on the opposition in the House over the issue – transforming himself before our eyes from sensible guardian of the economy to The Hulk – hyper-aggressive parliamentary secretaries Dean Del Mastro and Pierre Poilievre do their best to raise temperatures and lower decorum. This achieves the very opposite of allaying suspicions.

The opposition, mind you, is no better. NDP MP Pat Martin is so over-the-top in his accusations – "the most comprehensive election fraud in Canadian history," he calls it. Somewhere Sir John A. is smiling – that he risks discrediting the NDP's entire line of attack. And Liberal Leader Bob Rae has the millstone of the Vikileaks embarrassment – it turns out someone in his own office was behind the calumnious e-mails attacking Public Safety Minister Vic Toews – undermining his righteous anger.

All in all, after a week of this controversy, the air in Ottawa is so sulphurous it's hard to breathe. There will be more, much more, to come. And for now, at least, the Conservatives have no recourse but to fume, while their own agenda languishes on a siding.

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